You’re sick and that’s a shame but stay home or be shamed

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As concern over COVID-19 reaches fever pitch, health authorities are telling us the best way to slow the spread of coronavirus is to stay home if we feel even just slightly unwell. The advice is based on the fact the virus is transmitted so easily.

Experts warn that when an infected person sneezes or coughs, respiratory droplets can settle in the mouths or noses of those close by and subsequently be inhaled to cause infection. Think open-plan offices where you and your coughing and sneezing colleagues are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and within bug-spreading range.

Experts also say it is possible to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface that hosts the virus, and then touching your face. Think desk surfaces, coffee machines, fridge handles, telephone handsets, stair rails and even lift buttons.

Despite those warnings, and as certain as the calm before the storm, there will be those who decide to muscle through the workday no matter how severe their symptoms – and ignorant of the fact they are jeopardising the health of others.

International recruitment firm Robert Half found that around two-thirds of those participating in its survey admitted they sometimes went to work while sick. One-third disclosed they always went to work while ill.

With experts fearing an escalation in the number of cases of those infected with COVID-19 and with a prevailing workplace culture that seems to encourage us to come to work unwell, a drastic shift in attitude is needed – and fast.

Otherwise we will head into the office to transform the workplace into a cesspool of bugs by opening doors with clammy hands, spraying droplets of contaminated respiratory fluid into the air when we speak, contaminating screens with drippy red eyes and operating the coffee machine with our infected fingers.

In a sick sense of irony, many of us will encourage those feeling poorly to leave the office to go home to rest up. Yet we ourselves soldier on when we feel ill. Some of us will be offended by such behaviour in others but won’t see the same poor behaviour in ourselves.

Regardless of the type of illness we have contracted – coronavirus or otherwise – some things just need to be put on the table when it comes to going into work unwell. If in the past you have been of the view that coming to work sick highlighted your commitment to the cause or demonstrates how much you love your work, now is the time to ditch that perspective.     

Going sick into the workplace will spread your germs like wildfire, making many others unwell and ultimately causing mass workplace illness and potentially the business to grind to a complete halt.

Even more serious, though, is that infecting others is dangerous.  You might be fit as a fiddle and able to withstand a debilitating illness. However, not all colleagues have the same fighting power.   Some bosses are to blame for workers showing up sick in the office. They should hang their heads in shame for making team members feel uncomfortable about staying home when unwell. 

To protect our business, staff, bosses and our customers need to pull out all stops.  Bosses should tell those who are unwell to go home and stay home. If an employee has used up their allotted sick leave, they should be offered extra sick leave without financial penalty. 

And if bosses themselves are sick, they should go home too and set the right example. For those silly enough to ignore the barrage of advice on offer from health experts and still front up to work feeling crummy, be warned – the healthy will strike back.

A selfish play for admiration is more likely to be greeted with disdain and leave you sick-shamed. Your colleagues will say: “You should have stayed home but, hey, that would require a modicum of decency.”   

Instead of being offered the customary paracetamol, a packet of cough drops, vitamin C supplements or a sympathetic ear, expect to be told “go home, don’t spread your germs here”, “if you stay here you will make everyone else sick”  or “please cover your mouth when you cough”.   

But it won’t stop there. Be prepared for a sick-shamer to shove a boxes of tissues your way, use hand sanitiser before taking on anything in your possession, indiscreetly place a face mask on your desk or discharge a full can of disinfectant spray in your direction

There will even be cases where healthy workers direct those who are off-colour and refuse to go home to quarantine themselves in a remote part of the workplace to render them an office outcast.

So before you front up at work coughing like your throat is filled with crushed glass, keep in mind that regardless of whether your illness is contagious, staying at home will hasten your recovery, prevent colleagues from dropping like flies and spare you from becoming an office pariah.


Professor Gary Martin is the Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA.